Morris Kessler bumped into Gloria Greenspan back in ninety-seven, four years after she had ended the relationship. They were in the American terminal at JFK, both on their way to Chicago. She lived in Manhattan by then, a set designer for SNL. It sounded exciting and romantic to Kessler, who had been in New York for an insurance conference. “So you get to meet all the stars?” he asked. She laughed. “Everyone asks that. Yeah, I meet them all, but most of all I’m working my ass off trying to get the sets ready on time. Not so glamorous. Still in Albany Park?” “Afraid so. Still above the grocery store, but at least now I own the building.” “Nice,” she said, but it sounded to Kessler like “quaint.” “Mom’s in a home,” she went on. “She’s not able to live on her own any longer. I try to get out every few months to see her.” Gloria paused and took several sips of water. “She doesn’t always recognize me.” “It’s rough,” Kessler allowed. “How long are you staying?” “Just ‘til Thursday.” She was at the Hyatt in Lincolnwood. “My car’s at O’Hare. I can drop you. It’s practically on the way.” “That’s sweet of you, Morris.” On the drive in, they talked about the old times, the neighborhood characters. Dobbins, who lived in Italy. Lyle, who ran a Pizza Hut in Skokie. Mike, Jerry, Milt and Leigh, all of whom became doctors. Janis, who died of breast cancer. Sandra, who was a registered nurse. “And you?” she asked. “Married and selling insurance. Same old, same old.” “Thought you wanted to be a lawyer.” “Wanting to be and being are two different things,” he said. “But life is good.” She invited him up for a drink. “Thanks, but Martha’s expecting me.” As soon as he said it, he wished he had chosen a better name. Something more exotic. Milada, perhaps. Felice. In truth, there was no wife. Nobody. But he was not going to give Gloria the satisfaction of a quick fuck that would mean nothing to her and would open old wounds for him to fester and ooze puss long after she was back in New York moving sets around. “You don’t know her.” She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. “Great seeing you,” she said. “Keep in touch.” Kessler left her wondering why at fifty he hadn’t yet found the right woman. He’d led a decent life, made an acceptable living, was not deformed. “Are my standards too high?” he asked his friend, Lyle. “Am I abhorrent? What?” Lyle, who had been married and divorced three times, laughed. “Me you’re asking? You’re fine, Mo. Besides, marriage isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. You’re better off just dating. Whatever happened to what’s her name? Gloria.” There it was, Kessler thought, the problem. Mention his love life and his friends would all come up with the same name. True enough, he thought often of Gloria. Gigi, he called her. It could be when he passed the coffee shop where they would sit across from one another, silently sipping black tea. Or when he saw a woman on the L resting her head on the shoulder of the man next to her. Gloria Greenspan. Gigi. They went steady. They were a couple. And then it was over. To be sure, there had been other girls, women. But his dates tended to be one and done, as they would say now. There was no high school sweetheart. His few romances seemed seasonal: A relationship begun in the fall, didn’t survive the winter. Gloria was the exception. That was a romance that lasted in fits and starts over several seasons during his college days. But Kessler sensed Gigi saw him as more of a friend than a lover. And she ended it abruptly with the thinnest of explanations. She wanted to taste life, she had said, as if dating Kessler was some kind of bland death. “Plain as a paper bag,” Lyle had said at the time as a way of saying, You’re well rid of her, of giving Kessler some comfort. But Kessler heard it as, What did you ever see in her? And this irked him. “Funny you should ask,” Kessler said now. “I bumped into her a year ago. Lives in New York. I drove her in from the airport. She was visiting her mother. Nothing since. Think I should call her?” “If it was me, I wouldn’t put myself out on that limb.” Kessler nodded. She had been a skinny young woman, an inch taller than Kessler, with a broad mouth and when she laughed, which was often, she exposed more gum than the norm. Her hazel eyes were bright, always with a look of joyous expectation. Kessler rarely got to New York and he didn’t see the point of calling Gigi from Chicago. He knew she was visiting her mother every few months, and if she really wanted to see him, he reasoned, she would call.
Some months later, he complained again to Lyle about his inability to meet the right woman. Lyle suggested JDate, and Kessler signed up. One of the women he met for tea turned out to be a man. It was a pleasant evening; they had much in common. And except for the transsexual-heterosexual divide, he wouldn’t have minded seeing him again. The two others were decent, attractive ladies for whom Kessler felt nothing. “It’s not working,” he said. “Give it more time; you’ll find the right one,” Lyle said. Six months after that, after the turn of the Millennium, another insurance conference took him to New York and he called Gigi. She said she was glad to hear from him and they arranged to have dinner together. “You’re the only one in the world who calls me Gigi,” she said over the salad. “Just a habit. Would you rather I didn’t?” “No,” she said, “I like it. Reminds me of the old days back in Albany Park.” Kessler wondered why she was interested in the old days. She had dropped him cold, refused to answer his calls. And then she left town. Was she rethinking those decisions? “Don’t tell me the sophisticated Manhattanite misses the old neighborhood.” She just smiled and changed the subject. Later, during dessert, he confessed to her there was no Martha, that he wasn’t married. “I made it up because at the time, I didn’t think getting together with you for one night was a good thing.” She laughed. “Maybe you’re not as bright as I thought you were.” It was his turn to smile and change the subject. After dinner and a stroll down Fifth Avenue, they slept together in his hotel room. It wasn’t exactly like old times, because this was their first time. The second time was the following night in her apartment. Kessler enjoyed being with Gigi. She laughed as much as she always did and her gums were just as prominent, but he saw it as cute. He wondered what she saw in him. A link to the past? Lost innocence? In the morning she made breakfast for him—eggs and bacon. When it was time for him to leave, she accompanied him to the sidewalk. “I care for you, Morris, but I’m not in love with you,” she said before he stepped into the cab headed for the airport. “It’s a notice required by Mayor Giuliani’s Truth in Screwing Law.” Her broad smile made him laugh. Holding the cab door, he said, “I know. I’ll call you.” In truth, Kessler had no idea whether or not he was in love with Gloria. But he knew he liked being with her. She was witty and charming. While Kessler was rarely at ease talking with women, he found talking with Gloria as comfortable as talking with Lyle. Two months after his New York trip, she called him. Her mother had died and she was flying in. Could he pick her up from O’Hare? She kissed him on the cheek getting into his car. “It’s a nightmare. The funeral will be at Piser’s on Thursday. I need to pick out a casket, get all of her stuff out of the nursing home, find out where her bank accounts are. I don’t even know if she had insurance.” “Buckle up,” Kessler said. “We’ll muddle through the process together.” Gloria started to cry. She squeezed Kessler’s arm. “You’re a doll.” Together they gathered up all that needed gathering, searched for all that needed to be found and picked out a casket. At the funeral, Kessler sat next to Gloria, like a member of the family. Only a handful of people showed up. A mini-van from the nursing home brought five elderly women, and there were a few friends from the neighborhood. Lyle. Gloria stayed with Kessler. On the day after the funeral, he got up early and made breakfast for her—eggs and bacon. And that afternoon he drove her to the airport. “I couldn’t have gotten through it without you, Morris.” When they said goodbye she kissed him on the mouth and added, “Don’t be a stranger.”
“I saw how she was looking at you,” Lyle said later. “She’s got the hots for you.” “No, I don’t know how to explain it. We’re close, but I’m not sure it’s love.” “You’re screwing, right?” “That’s none of your business,” Kessler said. “I’ll take that as a yes. It’s the kind of thing where you’re going to wake up one morning and realize you’ve loved her all along.” “No. Trust me.” But deep down, Kessler wasn’t all that sure. Calls to and from Gloria became common. One evening she mentioned she was dating a guy, a sound engineer also on SNL. Divorced with three kids. “He loves to dance, Morris. First man I’ve ever met who loves to dance.” “Nice,” Kessler said, keeping his voice steady even though he felt he had taken a body blow. “What’s his name? Is this serious?” “Carl. Serious? At our age I don’t really know what that means. He’s a nice guy and we have fun together. Next time you’re in New York, I’ll introduce you.” There were few excuses for Kessler to get to New York, and since the funeral, Gloria hadn’t been to Chicago. On the following January 5, she called him. “Morris, I’ve got cancer. What am I going to do?” She was crying. “I’m coming up,” he said. “Is Carl with you?” “Long gone, I’m afraid. Scared him off like I probably scare off everyone.” “I’ll call you when I land.” “That little thing on your nose?” “It’s cancer, Morris.” There was a bandage across the bridge of her nose. “They sliced it off. It’s gone,” he said. “Hopefully, hopefully. Do you ever think about dying?” “I have enough trouble thinking about living. Why would I want to worry about dying?” “Funny, Morris. But were getting older. I’m not even fifty and I’ve had cancer.” “Unless there’s a time warp between here and Chicago, you and I are both fifty-two.” “Crap. I don’t look it though, do I?” Kessler assured her she looked like a teenager. On the flight back, he wondered if he really did love Gigi. What is love, anyway? And how do you know? He wasn’t looking for a Hallmark answer, but he wanted a sign. Unpacking his suitcase, he discovered a red lace thong with a Post-It note attached: “Lonely in the Big Apple, wish you were here.” He smiled. Gigi was making it difficult. Another thing not to mention to Lyle.